Six months after I graduated from seminary, I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper. A radical group of New Testament scholars, operating under the name The Jesus Seminar, had come to town for one of their annual meetings. Their audaciously self-appointed task, as a group of “biblical experts,” was to decide which teachings of Jesus were authentic and which, according to their research, had been fabricated by the early church. I was concerned that their claims might adversely affect people’s faith, so I wrote a disparaging letter about their meeting to the editor of our local newspaper. To my surprise my letter was placed at the top of the editorial section. The response it generated was beyond anything I expected.
Dozens of Christians from all over the county tracked me down and sent me notes congratulating me for my boldness. I was swamped by phone calls both at the office and at home. I also received some hate mail, including a quasi death threat. It came sealed in a package with an FBI cover letter that read, “The sender of this letter is under federal investigation. Please alert us of any unusual activity.” I thought, Oh, that’s wonderful! That next Sunday a man came into our worship service with a crowbar and sat near the front. When one of the ushers noticed him sitting in his seat angrily tapping the crowbar onto his palm, he alerted a few off-duty police officers in our congregation, and they forcibly removed him from the church building. I’m sure little kids watched this and thought, Church is awesome!
The problem with my letter was that it was only partially accurate. I listed all the reasons why I felt the words of Jesus in the Bible were trustworthy. I conveniently forgot, however, to include that I had lost my faith just a few years earlier and still had lingering doubts that plagued me. I’m sure that because of my lack of humility, my letter appeared condescending to many of the newspaper’s readers, including our church’s crowbar visitor.
Writer G. K. Chesterton once said that a madman is someone who “is in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point. He is without healthy hesitation and healthy complexity.” In my early years I felt my job as a pastor was to defend God. I felt it was my duty to present a nonwavering spiritual front, even if that meant not being completely honest about my own misgivings. I felt it was my job to shove my suspicions deep down inside and lock them in a corner closet of the basement of my soul. This, I was convinced, would inspire people; my certainty would rub off on others and give them certainty as well.
A few years of serving people in churches cured me of that. Helping the chronically unemployed, visiting six-year-olds with leukemia, praying with women who had been raped, and taking groceries to quadriplegics has a way of removing false pretenses. I quickly learned three words that I find myself uttering a lot these days: “I don’t know.” I don’t know why you lost your son. I don’t know why God gave you the parents he did. I don’t know why a lot of things happen anymore.
Somehow I don’t think Jesus envisioned his followers sending patronizing letters to newspaper editors or acting as if they have the answers to all the world’s questions. I believe that as Jesus uttered those final words in Matthew 28, he knew that a good dose of occasional doubt would give his followers the healthy hesitation and healthy complexity we all need to stay humble.
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